Saturday night’s Final Four round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament featured two highly anticipated games with very different outcomes.
Duke University’s Blue Devils blew out the Michigan State Spartans in the early matchup, 81-61. The evening pairing was a riveting, passionate and down-to-the-wire affair between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Wisconsin Badgers. After allowing their slim lead to escape with under two minutes remaining, the Badgers came back from a 60-56 deficit to outlast Kentucky, 71-64, at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium.
Wisconsin now plays Duke Monday night in the NCAA national championship.
The looming presence in the latter was the undefeated 38-0 record that the Kentucky Wildcats were sporting, and which they hoped to extend to a perfect 40-0 on the season. But it became obvious, during the final ticks of the clock, that the pressure to continue the streak was palpable. In those last few minutes, Wisconsin turned up the heat on the Wildcats, putting into practice every device they used during the regular season to foil Kentucky’s offense: tough perimeter coverage that forced the Wildcats into multiple 35-second shot clock violations – including forcing an Aaron Harrison air ball from beyond the arc, and then converting in transition at the other end – either with a Frank Kaminsky layup inside, or a Sam Dekker or Bronson Koenig three–pointer.
For the underdog Badgers, the words of senior guard Josh Gasser summed up the team’s mentality: “We weren't going to just hand it to them. We expected to win. There's a difference in believing you could do it and believing you will do it.”
Kaminsky, for his part, seemed to thrive under the conditions, scoring a double-double, with 20 points and 11 rebounds. And three other Badgers rounded out the squad’s balanced attack: Dekker hit for 16, and Koenig and Nigel Hayes notched 12 apiece. Hayes, according to Yahoo.com, was philosophical about Wisconsin’s draw through the West region bracket: “When the bracket came out, we were happy we got the number one seed, but we saw the teams we had to play, the inevitable game against a great Kentucky team, and knew it would be difficult … But that old cliché: if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. If we win a national championship, we can look back at the team we beat to do it.”
Wisconsin did a superior job on the evening in another key area: free-throw shooting. For the night, they got to the line 12 times more than Kentucky (22 in all), and made 17 of their charity shots (82 percent). Koenig and Kaminsky connected on seven of eight free-throws in the clutch, and this, as much as any more glamorous perimeter shot or dunk, secured the winning margin. Before those tense few minutes late in the second half, the Badgers had just surrendered an 8-0 run to go down by four, and appeared exhausted. But in the continuing tale of their resiliency as a group, they then proceeded to score eight unanswered points of their own en route to their victory.
The Wildcats’ AP Coach of the Year John Calipari, who until this game had skillfully managed the expectations (and pressure) that had coalesced behind his team of young and largely NBA-bound McDonald’s All-Americans, reflected afterward: “The thing that was tough is we are a finishing team, that’s what we’ve been, and we didn’t. They did and we didn’t. That’s why they’re still playing and we’re not.”
Karl-Anthony Towns led the Wildcats's scoring, with 16 points; but the fact they gave up 30 boards to the Badgers, and only had five 3-point attempts to Wisconsin's 17 (of which they only made three), were a main reason why the Badgers are still in the hunt for the national title.
Duke, on the other hand, stoically, systematically and decisively dismantled a Michigan State Spartans team Saturday that had been on an upswing both in their performance and motivation. The Blue Devils (34-4) used a three-pronged attack of freshmen Justice Winslow (19 points and 9 rebounds) and big man Jahlil Okafor (18 points and 6 rebounds), and senior perimeter specialist Quinn Cook (17 points) to offensively outperform the Spartans (27-12). Michigan State's Denzel Valentine had a solid performance, with 22 point and 11 boards, in addition to Travis Trice's 16 points. But in the end, it just didn't prove enough against the more opportunistic and savvy Blue Devils.
Though Duke only made an uncharacteristic two of ten shots from behind the arc, they compensated by hitting 26 of 50 field goals (52 percent) and their relentless defense caused Michigan State to commit 28 fouls (to Duke’s 18) – allowing Duke to convert on 27 of 37 from the foul line, as opposed to the Spartans’ 10 of 16.
For Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, the Final Four has proved something of a Rubik’s Cube, defying a solution. Since defeating Florida to win the national championship in 2000, Izzo is 1-7 in the Final Four, and his all-time record against the Duke coach is now 1-9. And of the four NCAA titles Mike Krzyzewski has won for Duke, two were won in Indianapolis – in 1991 and 2010.
Coach K returned his affection for Indy after the win Saturday evening, reported ESPN: “The city’s great, and even if we didn’t win tonight the city would still be great and the venue would be great … This team [Duke] though, deserved to be in it, and that makes it even better. They’ve been so good in this tournament, and the stage has not been too big for them.”
Wisconsin, who lost to the Blue Devils in Madison in early December of last year, 80-70, are now slim favorites in Monday nights’s NCAA championship game. The December game was different in one significant way for Wisconsin, which received 25 points from Traevon Jackson, who after an injury, has most recently been brought in to games in a reserve capacity with limited minutes. But as the tournament has revealed, the rest of the Badgers’ starting personnel has since picked up the slack and performed in both a dramatic and devastatingly effective manner.
Saturday night’s clash between Kentucky-Wisconsin, which was televised on TBS, but also simulcast with on TNT and truTV, was seen by 22.6 million viewers, making it the most-watched college basketball game ever. And one can safely assume, if past is prologue, that Monday’s conclusion to March Madness (9:18 p.m. Eastern time tipoff on CBS) will also be required viewing for anyone passionate about college basketball.